Mamma mia! Abba are back... and so is my schoolboy crush

The return of Abba to the recording studios after all these years, was music to the ears of John Arnold
Mamma mia! Abba are back... and so is my schoolboy crush

BIG IMPRESSION: Swedish pop group Abba perform their winning song Waterloo during the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974

THE news that Abba are back in the recording studios after years away from the music scene brought memories flooding back of the Swedish foursome and their influence on us so many years ago.

Growing up in the 1960s, The Beatles and Elvis were the pop stars, the music icons of the time, and every time one listened to any show on the radio playing ‘modern music’, the Fab Four and the boy from Tupelo seemed to be constantly played.

The ’60s and ’70s were the era of the Irish showbands too. Joe Dolan, Dickie Rock, Brendan Bowyer, Larry Cunningham, Sean Dunphy, Brendan O’Brien and the recently deceased Big Tom regularly sent us home sweatin’ up and down the country as the marquees and dance halls heaved with dancers and many hundreds who simply went along to listen and ‘swoon’ in front of the stage!

Yes, those were the days when cars were packed tightly with girls in mini- skirts and lads with bell-bottom trousers and Brylcreemed heads en route to dances all over the place. A crowd of a thousand or so would be regarded as only average. Facilities for bands, singers and dancers were fairly basic, but then those were less demanding times and, as they say, the livin’ was easy.

I suppose we went to dances for two reasons. Firstly there might be a girl you’d fancy and maybe she’d be there, and secondly the bands themselves were a real ‘draw’ — live stars coming to our locality, our town, our Ballroom of Romance.

Going to matches, carnivals and dancing were great social outlets for teenagers in the latter decades of the last century. Looking back now, it’s easy to say that Irish society was conservative, insular and closed to outside influences, but that’s a very narrow vision of the Ireland of 40 and 50 years ago. Money wasn’t fliúirseach but we always got by and I can’t ever remember staying at home from some dance or other ’cause I hadn’t got the five or ten bob admission fee!

Hormones are unusual yokes as they seem to arrive, increase, multiply and get active at different times in every teenager’s life. I innocently asked someone once about what was meant by ‘raging teenage hormones’ and the answer came quickly: “Yerra boy, when you notice the difference between a pants and a skirt, the hormones are up and running.”

We had no Youtube back then to tell us the ‘nature of things’ but we learned quickly enough! There is a story told of a parish Mission in rural Ireland in the mid 1960s. Even at that stage, attendance at the week-long Mission was regarded as compulsory for all those able-bodied persons who could attend.

During the week, one had to go to Confession and get the soul cleansed. Well, this particular youth was in the box, having admitted to the Missioner that it was ‘nearly two years’ since his last Confession. Presumably, a fairly lengthy string of sins was expected to be trotted out — probably mainly of the venial type. Despite his best investigative skills, the priest could get no admission of any guilt from the teenager.

To questions like “Do you obey your parents, go to Mass, bless yourself passing a graveyard and refrain from cursing?” the answer each time was the same ‘Yes, Father’.

Exasperated, the confessor asked: “And tell me now truthfully — do you ever entertain impure thoughts?” After thinking briefly and smiling came the answer. “No Father — but they entertains me!”

Now, in school we learned off by heart the Seven Deadly Sins — I had a fair idea that eating too much was gluttony and greed was kinda wanting everything. Envy and pride were where you thought too much of yourself and wanted things that others had. Those four were fairly simple but the other three — we really hadn’t a notion about ‘em!

Wrath and sloth, well, they were never committed by anyone in our area as far as I knew. That left lust, oh, lads that was the one we whispered about in secondary school and coming home on the bus.

Nobody knew exactly how to do it or commit the sin, but we had a fair idea it had something to do with the hormones!

In the early 1970s, Maggie Riordan on the television was the kind of girl you’d like to take home to meet the parents. Well, when it came to going dancing, Gina of the Champions was the bees’ knees, she was gorgeous and could sing so beautifully as well — an added bonus. Then, in 1974, the year we did the Leaving Cert, the Eurovision Song Contest was won by a group from Sweden, Abba.

Since our own Dana had won the contest in 1970, we in Ireland began to have a real interest in the contest. The next three years saw songs in the French language win. Then Abba won with Waterloo and nothing was ever the same since.

I didn’t know that the group consisted of two married couples and that drop-dead beautiful blonde Agnetha was wed to Bjorn. Married at 21, Agnetha was something else. We had no videos or DVDs back then but when Abba were on the telly, well, we were glued to it.

Did I lust after Agnetha? Yerra hardly, but all the same she was the apple, plum, cherry and peach of my eye. Her blond hair and radiant features would set any heart fluttering. She didn’t reveal undue amounts of leg or cleavage but she didn’t have to — she was just the embodiment of the female form and, oh, lads what a singer. She swivelled them hips and gyrated herself in a manner that was nearly indecent.

For more than a decade, Abba’s music ruled supreme. As regards dancing, I have two left feet, but the songs of Abba required minimal movement on the dance floor so you’d get away with anything moving to Waterloo, Chiquitita, Dancing Queen, Mama Mia and The Winner Takes It All. Today, decades later, all these songs are still popular classics.

Watching Agnetha perform on the TV and later in films, one imagined — well at least I did anyway — that she was looking straight at you and now and then, that alluring, slow, sensual wink — talk about pure pleasure.

I still don’t know if gazing longingly at the likes of Agnetha was lust or not, but wasn’t it a wise person once said: “John, it don’t matter where you get your appetite once you have your dinner at home?”

Abba broke up around 1983 and the marriages of Agnetha and Bjorn and Anna-Frid and Benny met similar fates, yet the magic lingers after all these years. Agnetha, like Sally O’Brien, and the way she might look at you!

Now, after all these years, the four members are back recording, they’re not doing it for the money — any of them aren’t short a few kroner.

So I say thank you for the music,

the songs I’m singing

Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing

Who can live without it,

I ask in all honesty

What would life be?

Without a song or a dance what are we?

So I say thank you for the music

For giving it to me

For me, Abba and Agnetha are stirring reminders of a glorious era — oh, for one of the hours of gladness, gone alas, like our youth too soon.

Love and romance are thankfully still with us in this changing world, but remember — don’t do it behind the garden gate, love is blind but the neighbours aren’t!

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